The End of Malaria?
By John Day Barnett
Imagine – if you can – a world without malaria. A place without bed nets protecting those living in tropical climates, without pesky mosquitos whose bites aren’t just pesky, they’re deadly.
Philanthropists and foundations spend billions of dollars per year in the fight to eradicate diseases like malaria, and scientists spend careers all over the world working to create vaccines, programs, and strategies to stop its spread. According to the World Health Organization, nearly half the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria, and in 2015 alone there were roughly 212 million cases.
Imagine now that instead of sending huge teams into rural India, Africa, and other at-risk locations, there was a way to stop the spread of malaria with genetics. Try to picture a way to stop mosquitos from carrying the disease, and pass that solution to every subsequent generation of mosquitos.
“Let’s say that you want to tweak a mosquito and make it so that the little parasite that carries malaria – terrible, awful malaria – either can’t get into the mosquito or can’t live in it and so that mosquito will no longer carry malaria.”
I first heard about this system, CRISPR, on a podcast from WNYC called RadioLab. The shows are brilliant combinations of story, science, and production, and include a host, Jad Abumrad, who won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2011. With the rise in popularity of podcasts recently, it’s worth going back to an early example of the medium and listening to one of the best. Here’s how Jad Abumrad describes how he first came across CRISPR:
I was at a party. It was a conference where they had a lot of different people of different disciplines come together…everybody was drunk on an empty stomach…I was standing there with some biologists…they started to lose their shit.”
The episode, originally from 2015 called Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR and updated in February 2017, is fascinating on its own. The hosts bring in experts to discuss the mechanics behind the gene systems along with the path of the discovery of CRISPR. They do the best job I’ve ever heard of taking incredibly complex ideas and breaking them down so they are understandable (at least on the surface) in under an hour.
Why does the story matter? After all, there are hundreds of podcasts telling thousands of stories. At the heart of the story is the idea of a scientific breakthrough affecting the lives of everyone on the planet, from cancer to malaria.
Once you listen to the episode, think about how farmers could grow disease-resistant crops in rural India. Think about that person in the hospital battling cancer receiving news of a new cure. Think about millions in Africa living without the threat of malaria. The implications of CRISPR and the gene drive technology are massive and will be felt for years to come, so I highly recommend you listen to the insightful episode.
Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR